Just who is Mayor Rahm Emanuel playing to?
By Anthony Moser
Here’s something I bet you don’t know about Chicago: we still have a residency requirement for civic employees. Teachers, firefighters, police officers – they all must live in city limits. So must the mayor, a requirement that nearly disqualified Rahm from running in the first place. It means that the people who serve the city also depend on those services. Such requirements are designed to make sure that officials are also citizens; to create a natural alignment between the way that they treat others and the way they are treated. In short, it is to prevent the city from fracturing into *them* and *us,* instead attempting to create a true sense of *we.*
We are all special interests
I bring this up because in each debate of this run-off season, the moderators asked Garcia how he could negotiate with the teacher’s union after receiving so much support for his election. The implication is that Chuy is in the pocket of the CTU, here portrayed as a special interest who stands to benefit from a new city contract negotiated with their friendly advocate. This *special interest* consists of 30,000 Chicago residents making far less than $100,000 a year as they seek to educate the children of our city.
This stands in stark contrast to Mayor Emanuel’s chief supporters, a small group of less than a hundred high-rollers who have collectively donated tens of millions of dollars to the mayor. More than half of Emanuel’s campaign money came from outside of Chicago. More than a third is from outside Illinois. Their substantial support has not gone unrewarded- these are, in the words of the Tribune:
…dozens of companies, firms and individuals who helped bring him to office with donations four years ago and who have since received a benefit from his administration. That can range from city approval for development projects to city contracts to mayoral endorsements or appointments.
Of course it’s not just a one way street where city contracts flow in the wake of campaign contributions. In the case of Magic Johnson, the city contract came first, to the tune of $80 million, and the $250,000 campaign contribution followed.
Rahm Emanuel, like Mayor Daley before him, has spent a great deal of time preaching the World Class City gospel. The story goes that for Chicago to thrive, it must stand proudly on the world stage, welcoming tourists, conventions, and international companies. More than that, everything must be *world class*: our bicycles, our infrastructure, our education, our marathon, our business sector. Especially our business sector.
This, presumably, is the justification for Rahm’s obsessive focus on downtown. Nearly half of the money collected in TIF districts has gone to the central business district. In case you are unfamiliar, TIFs are a means of diverting property taxes from their normal destinations, like schools and parks, and instead earmarking the funds for *development.* As originally enshrined in Illinois law, they were tools for improving blighted districts. Of course the Loop does not fit most definitions of *blight,* but the complicated rules of TIFs allow money to be shunted around between adjoining districts, so that money collected in Englewood can fund development downtown. Wealth does not flow from the prosperous center to the impoverished fringes, but instead the growth of downtown is financed by the parts of our city most in need.
Trickle downward facing dog
The TIF program and the World Class City gospel share the belief that the only jobs Chicago will ever have are those created by (and for) the service of the wealthy. This is essentially trickle-down economics. The area around the University of Chicago has some of the highest property values in the surrounding half of the city, yet some $20 million dollars was poured into the Harper Court project so that the residents could have access to Starbucks, Chipotle, and COREPOWER YOGA. Why does that $20 million *investment* take precedence over twenty smaller projects with actual community involvement? Large corporations, like Hyatt, Whole Foods, or Starbucks, won’t even touch the neighborhoods that truly need TIF help, which is why (many moons ago) the program was created.
Open the books
When Chuy Garcia suggests that we cannot truly know the state of the city’s finances until we actually get in there and open the books, this is what he’s talking about. In fact TIFs have been called the city’s *shadow budget* for the way they re-route public money to development projects not subject to the normal process of public scrutiny. This is money diverted from schools and parks to build Whole Foods and $55 million arenas. When the mayor derides Chuy for not presenting a clear plan, he ignores the fact that Chicago has a long history of hidden money, siphoned away from the very places he then insists we must cut for lack of funds.
So we come back to the question, *Who is the Mayor’s audience?*
Our mayor came into power after living in the city for less than a year with a campaign funded by powerful, wealthy people across the country. He has rewarded them with city contracts and privatization schemes even as he fired ordinary working folks like teachers and janitors by the thousands. He sues to curb pension benefits, while turning over those same pension funds to his friends and donors. He stands before the national media, taking no questions, to celebrate investment by and for the richest among us (and, given his ties to New York, Washington and LA, not among us). The campaign contributions Mayor Emanuel accepts in a week are more than many of the city’s residents could earn in a lifetime.
The campaign contributions Mayor Emanuel accepts in a week are more than many of the city’s residents could earn in a lifetime.
Take him at his word: Rahm is focused on making Chicago a city for the world. The rich, the multinational corporations, the conventions, the tourists, the investors. Lost in that drive is the goal of making Chicago a better place for Chicagoans. They are not part of the audience he is playing to, and neither am I.
Anthony Moser is a Chicago musician, husband and new father from a family of educators.